Apr 20, 2013

4th Easter: The shepherd's call

"My sheep hear my voice"
Acts 13: 14, 43-52
Rev. 7: 9, 14-17
Jn 10: 27-30

Most of us have seen movies of cowboys driving cattle across vast open plains out in the west.  Those of us who live out here can easily drive a few hours to more open territory where occasional cattle drives are still a part of life, albeit more advanced with the use of trucks in addition to men on horseback.

The point remains that you need a hearty group of cowboys to drive a herd of cattle in the right direction – from higher grazing in the summer to lower grazing in the winter for example. In order to keep the cattle moving, one needs to push from behind.  Men on horseback ride behind or to the side of the cattle but never in front lest a stampede start and you find yourself trapped.  They push from behind and remain patient as the cattle take their time wandering in herds close by each other.

Now the work of a shepherd is tamer by comparison since sheep are hardly cattle.  But one clear difference is made: in order to move the sheep along, the shepherd must lead from the front – no real fear of a sheep stampede.  The shepherd whistles or sings or speaks in a tone familiar to the sheep – and they follow what they hear because they come to recognize the distinct voice of their shepherd. As long as the shepherd is close by and the sheep stay relatively near to each other the danger is minimal for the shepherd is protection.  If a sheep falls behind the flock or out of range of the shepherd’s familiar voice, that sheep loses the protection of both shepherd and flock.

The image of Jesus as a shepherd was well known and popular in the early Christian years. For example, there is an often seen image of the good shepherd painted on the walls of the ancient Roman catacombs.  One never imagines a shepherd to be loud or rough like a cowboy might need to move those cattle along. Rather we imagine a gentle, patient and kind shepherd who is also protective.  It is this image of Jesus that we find an attraction to in the scriptures.  In addition, Psalm 23 is often the most quoted:  “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. In verdant pastures he gives me repose . . .” Who could not imagine a more peaceful scene.

If we can use the example the shepherd above, then we can see that the words of Jesus are indeed linked to human experience: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me . . .” (Jn 10: 27). As the shepherd walks in front of the sheep, leading them and caring for them, so too with the risen Christ – it is his voice that we must follow.  Unlike the cowboy who pushes from behind, this good shepherd leads from the front so that we might hear him call to us as he called to his own first disciples, “follow me.”

It’s interesting to note in light of our readings this Sunday, that what we normally refer to as a “flock” of sheep, can also be called a “mob” of sheep. While a flock connotes a more peaceful image, a mob conjures up a rebellious and disordered gathering. We see both this Sunday.

Our first reading from Acts of the Apostles is a bit rough.  It doesn’t sound like a flock but rather a mob.  Paul and Barnabas are clearly frustrated with the Jewish authorities and their rejection of the Gospel.  We hear claims of “jealousy” and “violent abuse.” And Paul and Barnabas who speak out boldly with chutzpah (they were Jews after all): “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles . . .” (Acts 13: 46). But all didn’t end peacefully because a “persecution” breaks out and Paul and Barnabas are “expelled” from the synagogue - and from their Jewish audience forever.

It’s a tough scene, this rebellious mob of sheep, yet the great missionary to the gentiles as Paul is called carries on the mission entrusted to him by the Lord Jesus.  This was not a flock who listened with open hearts and minds – a lesson for all of us who find ourselves saturated in a society of many voices which invite us to follow their sounds.  

So, in this technical, complicated, ever so independent world, where is the voice of the Shepherd we can follow? Where it always has been: in the Church, the scriptures, in personal and liturgical prayer, in our sacramental life, in the events of our daily lives, the community of believers, the beauty of creation, and all that is true, good and beautiful. But are we listening?  Do we even care to hear the voice of this shepherd who offers us his very life in return for our following?

It is interesting to note that our present Holy Father Pope Francis, a man of metaphors in his teaching, took note recently by saying that in our day we have the opposite of the parable of the one lost sheep.  Today, we have 99 who are lost and one who remain with the shepherd.  In other words, the evangelizing mission of the Church entrusted to all believers since the time of the Apostles, must continue.

This Good Shepherd Sunday invites us to hear the call of Christ our Shepherd who desires that we stay close to him in the Church, in the community of believers, by participation in the sacramental life of the Church.  We then have the protection of the promised protection of the shepherd who guarantees: “No one can take them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”  (Jn 10: 28-29).

We have a bond which unites us to Christ and to one another through baptism and our apostolic faith.  Our gatherings each weekend for word and sacrament remind us of the flock we are a part.  Is the risen Lord truly our shepherd or do we simply show up while listening to another voice? This shepherd feeds us with his very Body and Blood, this shepherd gave his life for us out of love, and this shepherd desires that not one of us be lost. If we wander from the flock we are always welcomed back into the fold through his love and mercy. 

Read the entire chapter 10 of John’s Gospel to understand more fully.  Reflect on Luke 15 and the overwhelming love of the Father for us.  Need we say more?
Almighty ever-living God,
Lead us to a share in the joys of heaven,
So that the humble flock may reach
Where the brave Shepherd has gone before.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the
Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.

(Collect of 4th Easter)